Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Importance of Conflict

I'm taking a class on Newbery award winning books, and I'm reading some fantastic award winning literature for children.  Some of the books are truly out-of-this-world fantastic, such as:

  • One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams
  • Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz
  • Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice by Phillip Hoose

But some other books on my reading list I'm having issues with.  And they have have something in common: lack of conflict.

They're written beautifully.  They have big themes.  They have style and voice.

But I really take issue with the lack of conflict because it makes me ask: so what?  Why are we reading about this character in this moment?  So what?  Why is this event important?  So what?  How is this character learning, changing, growing, evolving if they don't face any challenges?  So what?  Why write this story, about this character, in this moment?

If there isn't any conflict, then the story itself loses immediacy, urgency, and importance.  Where's the risk? Where's the possibility of failure?  Why should the reader root for success?  And then why should that success mean something?

Stories that lack conflict also lack pacing.  And perhaps this is why the Newbery has been criticized as being a bunch of "great" books that kids don't read.  Pacing is critically important in engaging child readers.  Without conflict, without tension, without risk, keeping the pages turning is near impossible.

The Newbery committee typically focuses on the following criteria in literary fiction:

  • Interpretation of the theme or concept
  • Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
  • Development of a plot
  • Delineation of characters
  • Delineation of a setting
  • Appropriateness of style.

Hmmmm.  Development of plot.  Seems to me that's where conflict should go.  Or perhaps it could go under delineation of character. (As without testing your characters, how can you see what they're made of?)

However, maybe conflict should get its own category.  I'd argue it's important enough.  Aren't some of the most memorable characters in classic literature made memorable through the challenges they face? Would Romeo and Juliet be as memorable without the feud between their two families?  Would Jane Eyre be as memorable without her internal struggle between passion and morality?  Would Pip be as memorable without the conflict between his superficial values and his conscience?

Something to think about if you're a writer.  One of my favorite pieces of advice is: to be MEAN, be CRUEL to your characters.  Make them face their biggest fears.  Throw everything you can at them.  I love that advice.  When I do it, my characters become more alive, writer's block isn't a problem, and the plot moves at a steady pace.

Now if I can just get the Newbery committee to acknowledge conflict as its own crucial entity in the selection process...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

Looking for a fresh, original high fantasy novel?  Looking for a book with a strong, complex female protagonist?  Check out Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon.

This is one of the best fantasy novels I've read since Kristin Cashore's Graceling.  Fantastic world-building, an intriguing villain (especially in the 2nd book), and fast-paced plot.  I absolutely love that this is an Asian inspired fantasy, and if you enjoyed Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days, you'll love this!

Essential plot: Ai Ling goes off in search of her father who she fears is dead, and while on her journey, meets the handsome Chen Yong and discovers she has the power to read and control other people's spirits. She must face a great evil who has been using other's souls for his own immortality.

Word of Caution: I definitely could not recommend this to my 6th graders because of some mature violence and sexual themes.  But a great read for the upper YA bracket!

Note: This is a two book series.
Book One = Silver Phoenix
Book Two = Fury of the Phoenix

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Meeting Maggie and SCBWI Fall Conference '11

I had the most awesome weekend ever and am now feeling so totally in love with books and writing.  This is seriously my calling.

First bit of awesomeness: Meeting Maggie Stiefvater

 Maggie ranks up there in favorite authors.  She's in the top 10.  I've read all of her books (BalladLamentShiverLingerForever) and follow her blog religiously (she has a fantastic sense of humor on her blog and gives great writing tips).

I'd always seemed to miss her book signings because they were in the summer while I was away at graduate school.  But her new book, The Scorpio Races, just came out this week, and she was having a launch event in DC at Politics and Prose.  This time I could go!  And I had no school the next day!

The afternoon started out with me wanting to cry because it took me over 2 hours to get down to DC for the event and I ended up being 30 minutes late.  I quietly walked in, found a seat near the front, and basked in Maggie's awesomeness.

I actually ended up missing any speaking that was done by her and arrived just as she was handing out prizes.  The girls next to me gave me one of the raffle postcards that were sitting on the chairs while Maggie began calling out numbers.

And guess what???  I won the big prize!!!  I won a copy of Scorpio Races with beautiful horses drawn on the cover by Maggie herself!  This is not only the first thing I've ever won, but by far the coolest thing I could ever possibly win.  I've admired Maggie's artwork whenever she posts pictures on her blog.  Especially her Sharpie guitars, but as I have no use for a guitar, the book with her art was perfect!

I got the book signed by Maggie, told her I'd read all her books, told her I loved her blog, told her I appreciated the writing advice she posted because I was in an MFA program.  She was so personable and cheerful.  Book signings can be awkward sometimes, but there was none of that.  I give her top marks!

I can't wait to read Scorpio Races, and will definitely post about it when I do!

Second bit of awesomeness: SCBWI Conference

I attended the SCBWI Fall Conference on Saturday.  For those of you who don't know, it's a writer's conference sponsored by the Society of Children's Book Writer's and Illustrators.

There were 280 people in attendance!  We were packed into a ballroom in the Holiday Inn in Dulles for a day of speeches and advice regarding writing for children.

I'm not providing specific play by plays of the presentations because the material is copyrighted, but here is a brief rundown of the awesome day.

Author/Illustrator Brian Lies (Bats on the Beach, Bats in the Library, Bats at the Ballgame) spoke about marketing your book.  His presentation was magnificent and offered great ideas creating hype about your book and making a book signing more exciting.

There was an Agents Panel with Jennifer Rofe of Andrea Brown Literary Agency and Quinlan Lee of Adams Literary.  They gave lots of informative answers to questions about the writer/agent relationship.

Chelsea Eberly of Random House gave a talk about how to create the perfect "Hook for your Book" and how having a hook will both catch editors' attention and help them sell your book.

The keynote speaker was author Han Nolan.  She was so sincere and inspiring.  What really resonated with me about her speech is striving for excellence when we're writing, and reading the best books out there (award winners) so you know where the bar is set and to inspire you to reach for it.  Which is exactly what I'm doing by taking this course on Newbery books!  :)

There was an author panel (Meg Medina, Anne Marie Pace, Wendy Shang, Amy Brecount White) about the highs and lows post-publication which offered a very realistic look at what it's like to be a published author.

And finally, there was an Editor's Panel on creating credible characters.  Chelsea Eberly (Random House), Caroline Abbey (Bloomsbury), and Abby Ranger (Disney-Hyperion) offered some constructive advice on common character flaws they see in writing and questions to ask yourself to create stronger characters.

This was a regional conference, meaning I didn't have to travel far and it was relatively cheap (around $100).  The quality of information was excellent, and I came away feeling motivated and excited about writing and literature.  If you are a writer for children, I highly recommend you look into attending an SCBWI regional conference!